“Don’t think less of yourself – just think of yourself less.” 
~Charles Green 

Most January articles start with “fresh new start!” “build new habits!” “this is your year!” We begin, or rather continue, with failure. 

Some students are waking up to 2021 with fresh college admittance letters in their digital hands, a ticket to a bright future with endless possibilities. Others just put the finishing touches on their applications and are anxiously trying not to think about how they failed to write the most perfect essay. Still others are shaking off a rejection, their childhood dreams crushed in a moment. More than one student have expressed their greatest fear not being their own disappointment, but being seen as a failure to their parents. Within certain communities, it is easy to get caught up during college admissions cycles about who got in and who failed. It is easy to forget that there are many ways to pursue learning. It is easy to take individual rejection letters as an iron door shutting out dreams.  

Meanwhile, with a global pandemic exacerbating failed infrastructures – from transportation to healthcare – other students are questioning the value of a college education. Students from India to Maine have seen the failures of digital, educational, social, economic, [fill-in-the-blank] divides. The reality is many students are weighing dropping out of school to help put food on their family’s tables. NPR reported that while 81% of rural students wanted to go to college, 17% said they must work instead. Twenty percent believe they are not smart enough to get in. During a time of looming debt and an uncertain economy, it may seem like a societal commentary on the intellectual limitations and worth of those already underserved by inequities. This year, more than one school counselor have expressed their struggles to convince their students that the pursuit of education, whether tertiary, vocational, or secondary, is still important for their futures. 

It is easy to feel hopeless amidst failure. So, is a college investment still “worth it?”  

That question is inadequate and quite frankly, reflective of the failed thinking about the pursuit of education.  

Failure, however, is exactly what we need. But we don’t like to talk about the failures. That’s for the Losers. The Losers didn’t get into their first-choice college. The Winners did. The Losers don’t get the job promotion. The Winners never fail. 

Sure, some people look like they’ve got it made. But ask them, and they will tell you, they failed a million times. Thomas Edison. Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Michael Jordan. Once, an old friend was ruminating about their NIH grant application, telling me, “you don’t get it! Everything comes easy to you!” I suppose they never saw the 2,392 rejection letters I’ve received in my lifetime (OK, I have no idea if it’s that many, but it feels like more), including a recent one on a project in which I deeply believe (yes, students, even if you got into your first-choice school, you have thousands of failures ahead of you, hooray!). 

This recent rejection was the loveliest rejection letter I ever received. It was honest, thoughtful, and compassionate. I want to befriend the author because it is rare for a senior leader to demonstrate such compassionate candor. Given their elegant rejection, I’d guess they have failed many times in their life, certainly enough to know that how one communicates and receives failure is essential to how one learns. My failure was disappointing for a second – not because I didn’t care or pretended it didn’t happen – but because I care. Because I know that this temporary setback is going to help me iterate my project. Because I know that this project is not just about me; it’s about what it might offer others. 

Design thinkers know this. This problem-solving process requires prototyping and testing and refining. Failure is encouraged. And at the heart of it are humans and human progress. 

Whether students decide that a 4-year college is the right path this moment or not, we must support and remind them that the iterative process of learning cannot stop. Whether students decide that a job is the right path this moment or not, we must support and remind them that the value of their experience is as not any better or worse than any other form of learning. We adults must concede the failures of valuing one form of learning over another, defining success as billions of dollars and Instagram followers, one system that accelerates one while leaving thousands behind, and one’s self-worth and potential by narrow metrics. Learning happens in multiple places and spaces without Loser-Winner labels. Learning is not just about “me,” but about “we.”  

The world needs thinkers who do, and doers who think. How might we encourage failure? 

  • Seek imperfection 

Just as in meditation where a moment of mind wandering is not a failure but a moment to practice mindfulness, failure is a moment to explore. The Japanese philosophy, wabi-sabi, (not wasabi) celebrates impermanence and imperfection. Failure (and success) is temporal, and it is from imperfection we learn. 

  • Look beyond yourself 

We often internalize failures, leading to self-fulling prophecies, stereotype biases, and the Imposter Syndrome. One failure becomes our identity, and we ruminate on our shortcomings. Yet as Kristin Neff’s work on Self-Compassion finds, it is important for us to remember our shared humanity. Whether our immediate focus is food on the table or entrance to the top university, when we become “other-focused,” we may view setbacks as opportunities to contribute to a better tomorrow. 

  • Keep learning 

Learning is not confined to four walls. For some, it might be a traditional four-year institution. For others, it might be going into the workforce. The important part is to stay curious and find opportunities to learn at every moment – our world needs this creativity and innovation. 

Failures is what makes us all humans. Our relationship with failure is what enables us to grow as humans. How we build from failure allows us to come together as humanity.  

Perhaps two questions about the investment of learning are: in the service of what and in the service of whom?